Locklin on science

Spotting vaporware: three follies of would-be technologists

Posted in Design, nanotech, non-standard computer architectures, Progress by Scott Locklin on October 4, 2010

When I was a little boy in the 70s and 80s,  I was pretty sure by the 21st century I’d drive around in a hovercraft, and take space vacations on the moons of Saturn. My idea of a future user interface for a computer was not the 1970s emacs interface that the cleverest people still use to develop software today, I’d just talk to the thing, Hal-9000 style. I suppose my disappointments with modern technological “advances” are the boyish me complaining I didn’t get my  hovercraft and talking artificial brain. What boggles me is the gaping credulity that intelligent people treat alleged developing future technologies now.

A vast industry of professional bullshit artists has risen up to promote and regulate technologies which will never actually exist. These nincompoops and poseurs are funded by your tax dollars; they fly all over the world  attempting to look important by promising to deliver the future. All they actually deliver is wind and public waste.  Preposterous snake oil salesmen launched an unopposed blitzkrieg strike on true science and technology during my lifetime. I suspect the scientific and technological community’s rich marbling with flâneurs is tolerated because they bring in government dollars from the credulous; better not upset anybody, or the gravy train might stop flowing!

While I have singled out Nano-stuff for scorn in an article I’d describe as “well received,” (aka, the squeals of the ninnies who propagate this nonsense were sweet music to my ears), there are many, many fields like this.

The granddaddy of them all is probably magnetic confinement nuclear fusion. This is a “technology” which has been “just 20 years in the future” for about 60 years now. It employs a small army of plasma physicists and technicians, most of whom are talented people who could be better put to use elsewhere. At some point, it must be admitted that these guys do not know what they are doing: they can’t do what they keep promising, and in fact, they have no idea how to figure out how to do it.

I think there is a general principle you can derive from the story of magnetic confinement fusion. I don’t yet have a snappy name for it, so I’ll call it, “the folly of plan by bureaucracy.” The sellers of such technology point out that it is not known to be impossible, so all you need do is shower them in gold, and they will surely eventually deliver. There are no intermediate steps given, and there is no real plan to even develop a plan to know if the “big idea” is any good. But they certainly have a gigantic bureaucratic organizational chart drawn up. The only time large bureaucracies can actually deliver specific technological breakthroughs (atom bombs, moon shots) is when there is a step by step plan on how to do it. Something that would fit in Microsoft project or some other kind of flow chart. The steps must be well thought out, they must be obviously possible using small improvements on current techniques, and have a strict timeline for their completion. If any important piece is missing, or there are gaping lacunae in the intermediate steps, the would-be technology is a fool’s mission. If there is no plan or intermediate steps given: this would-be technology is an outright fraud which must be scorned by serious investors, including the US government.

To illustrate this sort of thing in another way: imagine if someone shortly after the Bernouilli brothers asked the King for a grant to build a mighty aerostat which travels at 3 times the speed of sound. Sure, there is no physical law that says we can’t build an SR-71 … just the fact that 18th century technologists hadn’t invented heavier than air flight, the jet engine, aerodynamics, refined hydrocarbons, computers or titanium metallurgy yet. Of course, nobody in those days could have thought up the insane awesomeness of the SR-71; I’m guessing a science fiction charlatan from those days might imagine some kind of bird-thing with really big wings, powered by something which is thermodynamically impossible. Giving such a clown money to build such a thing, or steps towards such a thing would have been the sheerest madness. Yet, we do this all the time in the modern day.

A sort of hand wavey corollary  based again on fusion’s promises (or, say, the “war on cancer”), I like to call, “the folly of 20 year promises.” Bullshitters love to give estimates that allow them to retire before they’re discovered as frauds; 20 years is about long enough to collect a pension. Of course, a 20 year estimate may be an honest one, but I can’t really think of any planned, specific technological breakthrough developed by a bureaucracy over that kind of time scale, and I can think of dozens upon dozens which have failed miserably to the tune of billions of research dollars. What “20 years” means to me is,  “I don’t actually know how to do this, but I  wish you’d give me money for it anyway.”

A burgeoning quasi-technological field which is very likely to be vaporware is that of quantum computing. This pains me to say, as I think the science behind this vaporware technology is interesting. The problem is, building quantum gates (the technology needed to make this theoretical concept real) is perpetually always somehow 20 years off in the future. We even have a very dubious company founded, and in operation for 11 years. I don’t know where they get their money, and they manage to publish stuff at least as respectable as the rest of the QC field, but … they have no quantum computer. Granted, many in the academic community are attempting to keep them honest, but their continued existence demonstrates how easy it is to make radical claims without ever  being held to account for them.

David Deutsch more or less invented the idea of the quantum computer in 1985. It is now 25 years later, and there is still no quantum computer to be seen. I think Deutsch is an honest man, and a good scientist; his idea was more quantum  epistemology than an attempt to build a practical machine that humans might use for something. The beast only took on a bureaucratic life of its own after Peter Shor came up with an interesting algorithm for Deutsch’s theoretical quantum computers.

Now, let us compare to the invention of modern computers by John von Neumann and company in 1945.  Von Neumann’s paper can be considered a manual for building a modern computer. His paper described a certain computer architecture: one which had already been built,  in ways that made its mathematical understanding and reproduction relatively simple. Most computers in use today are the direct result of this paper.  I’d argue that it was engineering types like Hermann Goldstine and John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert who actually built digital electronic computers before von Neumann’s paper, who made the computer possible. In turn, their ideas were based on those of analog computers, which have a long and venerable history dating back to the ancient Greeks. The important thing to notice here is the theory of binary digital computers came after the invention; not the other way around.

Now, it is possible for theory to have a stimulating effect on technology: von Neumann’s paper certainly did, but it is rare to nonexistent to derive all the properties of a non-existent technology using nothing but abstract thought. The way real technology is developed: the technology or some sort of precursor gizmo or physical phenomenon comes first. Later on, some theory is added to the technology as a supplement to understanding, and the technology may be improved.  Sort of like, in real science, the unexplained phenomenon generally comes first; the theory comes later.  In developing a new technology, I posit that this sort of “theory first” ideology is intellectual suicide. I call this, “the folly of premature theory.” Theory don’t build technologies: technologies build theories.

Technology is what allows us our prosperity, and it must be funded and nurtured, but we must also avoid funding and nurturing parasites. Cargo-cult science and technologists are not only wasteful of money, they waste human capital. It makes me sad to see so many young people dedicating their lives to snake oil like “nanotechnology.”  They’d be better off starting a business or learning a trade. “Vaporware technologist” would be a horrible epitaph to a misspent life. I have already said I think technological progress is slowing down. While I think this is an over all symptom of a decline in civilization, I think the three follies above are some of the proximate causes of this failing. Bruce Charlton has documented many other such follies, and if you’re interested in this sort of thing, I recommend reading his thoughts on the matter.

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